Through the first six games of the 2012 season, there’s one thing we’ve learned about the Patriots above all else: They’re not finishers.
As has been the case on many occasions throughout the year, this is a group that has not consistently displayed the requisite mental toughness needed to close out good opponents, particularly on the road. Three weeks after failing to hold on to a nine-point fourth-quarter lead against the Ravens in Baltimore (and one week after nearly choking away a 17-point fourth-quarter edge against the Broncos), New England was at it again Sunday against the Seahawks in Seattle.
The result? A 13-point fourth-quarter lead that washed away in a drizzle, as Russell Wilson and the Seahawks shocked the Patriots with a 24-23 win (click here for the complete recap).
“Today was one of those days where we just didn’t do enough things well enough,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We just didn’t play well the whole game today. It was the end of the game, it was the first half, it was the second half. We played in spurts -- we just didn’t play well enough. And when we had our chances, we didn’t take advantage of them.”
Stop me if you’ve heard any one of these before (chances are you saw most of it here a few weeks ago): For New England, there were multiple breakdowns on both sides of the football in the fourth quarter. The Patriots had two first downs over the final 10:30, both of them coming from undersized running back Danny Woodhead. New England’s four-minute offense was nonexistent, and the Patriots couldn’t run the ball effectively down the stretch -- they had 27 yards from scrimmage in the final 10:30 and 19 rushing yards over the final 11 minutes.
“I think we’ve just got to do a better job when it counts,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “We have to do a better job. Certainly, I have to do a better job.”
On defense, they couldn’t get big stops when it mattered, particularly in the passing game. New England’s defensive backs spent much of the afternoon making rookie quarterback Russell Wilson look like a Pro Bowler: The Patriots defense allowed six pass plays of 20 yards or more and four pass plays of 40-plus yards. There were three completions, including a 46-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice, as well as a 40-yard pass interference penalty in the fourth quarter on safety Patrick Chung.
In the end, a quarterback who came into the game heading up the league’s second-worst passing offense at 169.7 yards per game ended up with 293 aerial yards on 16-for-27 passing with zero picks.
“We didn’t make enough plays,” defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said of the Patriots, who suffered their third loss of the season by two points or less. “Plain and simple.”
With the exception of the second half against the Bills, it’s been the same old song for this team: No answers for much of anything in the second half. With a chance to beat the Cardinals at home, the Pats came up short when Stephen Gostkowski missed a 42-yard field goal in the final seconds. Leading the Ravens, 30-21, in the fourth quarter, the Pats allowed the Ravens to score 10 late points and win on a field goal at the buzzer.
It all adds up to the fact that, since the regular-season opener, the Patriots have failed to put together 60 minutes of football. As a result, they are 3-3, and in an absolutely ridiculous four-way tie in the AFC East, with the Jets coming to town next weekend.
“We talk about playing a good 60 minutes of football, and we seem to come up a little bit short,” said Wes Welker, who went over 100 yards receiving for the fourth consecutive game. “These close games like this, especially when you have the lead in the fourth quarter, you have to be able to put it away. We weren’t able to do that today.”
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Sunday.
PATRIOTS DEFENSIVE BACKS AREN’T MAKING THE PLAYS
Where to start? How about slot corner Kyle Arrington getting beaten (and later benched) early? We could go with Alfonzo Dennard getting turned around on a second-half touchdown pass to veteran wide receiver Braylon Edwards. And to close things out, there’s always safeties Nate Ebner and Tavon Wilson giving up the game-winner late. Wherever you look, it was a miserable afternoon for the New England defensive backs, who will bear a sizable portion of the blame for the loss.
“I got beat,” Patriots safety Tavon Wilson said when asked by reporters about the game-winner down the middle of the field to Sidney Rice. “I accept that. We were in simple coverage. He made the play, and I didn’t.”
“Nothing we did today was good enough,” Belichick said when asked after the game about the play of the defensive backs. “On offense, defense, special teams, coaches, players, everybody involved in the game. It just wasn’t good enough. We all made mistakes. We had our chances, we just didn’t do a good enough job.”
The Seattle quarterback struggled on several occasions for large portions of this game -- the Seahawks not only couldn’t score, they didn’t have a drive longer than seven plays through the second and third quarter. But Russell Wilson made the big plays when it counted, engineering a pair of fourth-quarter drives that ended in touchdowns, with much of the yardage coming at the expense of the New England secondary.
“We just focused in,” Russell Wilson told reporters after the game. “Obviously, the New England Patriots are a good team, so they’re going to make some plays. We’re going to make some plays. I think the key is continue to stay focused on what we can control, and play one play at a time and stay in that moment and stay in the now. And we definitely did that. The defense made some huge, huge stops there, and we got that opportunity and we came up big.”
YOU RARELY SEE THE PATRIOTS BLOW IT AS BADLY AS THEY DID AT THE END OF THE FIRST HALF
The Patriots are ready for any situation, but the missed opportunity at the end of the first half because of a misfire was shocking. As a result, they cost themselves valuable points in a game where they could have desperately used them.
“We just didn’t do a good job on that play,” Belichick said.
New England was given a gift from the football gods when Seattle punter Jon Ryan botched a punt with less than a minute to go, giving the Patriots the ball on the Seahawks’ 24-yard line. Armed with two timeouts and a 17-10 lead, it looked like New England was going to get at least three and maybe seven as a result of what happened, especially after Brady got the Patriots to the 3-yard line with 12 seconds left.
After an incomplete pass to Rob Gronkowski left six seconds on the clock, Brady fired one last pass for the end zone, but he was called for intentional grounding. The penalty calls for a 10-second runoff, so that meant the half was over, and the Patriots had missed out on a terrific chance to pad their lead. (It brought to mind the intentional grounding on Brady in last year’s Super Bowl that resulted in a safety.)
“We thought we could take a shot at a touchdown there,” Brady said. “I’ve just got to throw the ball away a little bit closer to one of our guys -- I think that’s what it comes down to. It’s tough to give up three points. We got a fortunate break on the muffed punt snap, [but] that’s why we lose games, because you squander opportunities to score points.”
THE ISSUES IN THE RED ZONE MUST BE DISCUSSED
After two weeks in which the Patriots offense converted at a pretty good rate when it came to cashing in on their red zone chances (against Buffalo and Denver, New England was 9-for-11), the Patriots offense stalled out consistently in the red zone against Seattle.
On the afternoon, New England was just 1-for-6 when it came to scoring touchdowns in the red zone. (At 17 percent, it was their lowest percentage on the season.) The lone conversion for the Patriots came on their first red-zone trip, on a first-half touchdown pass from Brady to Aaron Hernandez from the 1-yard line that gave the Patriots a 14-10 lead early in the second quarter.
The rest of the way it was turnovers (Brady was picked off in the end zone) and three field goals from Gostkowski, who connected once from 25 yards out and added two 35-yarders for good measure. Ultimately, the fact that the Patriots were able to put up 475 net yards on the afternoon is small consolation for a team that couldn’t finish off drives.
“We had quite a few yards. We moved the ball up and down the field at times,” Brady said. ”Like I said, we really squandered some scoring opportunities, and that was what the game came down to. You come down to a one-point game. We had an opportunity in the red area for a touchdown [and] we had a few other opportunities to put points on board, and we just didn’t do it.”
MANY TIMES LATE IN THE GAME, TOM BRADY WAS PART OF THE PROBLEM, NOT THE SOLUTION
He had his moments -- when you look back at the box score, you’ll see some gaudy numbers from the quarterback, who went 36-foir-58 for 395 yards and two touchdowns. But in key moments against the Seahawks, Brady struggled, tossing two picks – it could have been as many as five -- and adding a pair of costly penalties that helped doom the Patriots.
“I thought we squandered quite a few opportunities today,” Brady said. “Certainly we have to do a better job, and it starts with me.”
First, the interceptions: The initial pick came late in the third on a badly thrown ball when he tried to float one down the seam to wide receiver Deion Branch. (Seattle’s Richard Sherman made a nice play to pick off the ball.) It was just the second interception of the season by Brady, and it put a stop to a drive that would have effectively ended the game. The second was another turnover in Seattle territory, but it was far more costly. It came on New England’s first drive of the fourth, and happened when Earl Thomas picked off a pass in the end zone intended for Wes Welker.
Second, the penalties: It was a bad day for the quarterback to pick up his first two flags of the season. He was called for two intentional grounding penalties, with the first coming at the end of the first half which wiped out any chance the Patriots had at a score at the end of the second quarter because of the mandated 10-second runoff. The second came with just under five minutes left and left the Patriots in a third-and-20 hole that New England was unable to climb out of.
Compounding the problems was the fact that he underthrew at least six passes (due in large part to the wet and slippery conditions), and in the end, you have a less-than-optimal performance for the quarterback.
“I just wish I just executed better, to tell you the truth,” Brady said. “I don’t think about the weather much. I just try to go out there and do my job the best I can, and obviously the throws that were under-thrown, I wish I did a better job putting it where the guy could catch it.”
WES WELKER IS TOUGHER THAN A NICKEL STEAK
There are a lot of guys who can shoulder the blame for the defeat, but wide receiver Wes Welker isn’t one of them. He was the primary reason the Patriots were able to move the chains nicely in the second and third quarters, and he ended up with 10 catches for 138 yards and one touchdown.
Welker provided the offensive highlight of the day for the Patriots, hooking up with Brady on a 46-yard touchdown connection in the first quarter on a sweet route that appeared to head down the seam. Welker had a step on the defender, and Brady put it in a place where only Welker could catch it. It capped off a six-play, 82-yard drive that took 1:46 and ended with the Brady to Welker connection to give New England a 7-3 lead. The 46-yarder was the second-longest TD reception of Welker’s career, trailing only the 99-yarder in last year’s opener.
But if there was one play that could ever quantify Welker’s toughness, it came in the second quarter when he was absolutely lit up on a 7-yard out route by Seattle defensive back Brandon Browner. Welker took a helmet right to his chest and clearly was shaken up as he wobbled to the sidelines. It was a shot that would have left most on the sidelines for an extended stretch, but four plays later Welker was back on the field. The slot receiver would go on to haul in an 11-yard reception from Brady to keep the chains moving on third down.
Welker finished with 10 catches and 138 yards, becoming the first Patriots receiver since Randy Moss in 2007 amass four straight games of 100 yards receiving.
“Right now, it’s really frustrating,” Welker said. “We just have to get back to work and really work on these things and make sure we’re pushing through and win the games in the end.”
THE PATRIOTS RUN DEFENSE ADDED ANOTHER POSITIVE CHECK MARK
The New England run defense did a terrific job bottling up Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, with linebacker Brandon Spikes delivering two really impressive hits on the rugged running back. The first one came on Seattle’s first drive of the game in the shadow of New England’s end zone: On a third-and-1 at the Patriots’ 9-yard line, he met Lynch in the hole, knocking him back two yards and forcing a Seattle field goal.
The second one came on Seattle’s first play from scrimmage at the start of the third quarter when Spikes busted right up the middle and tackled Lynch for a 4-yard loss. Lynch finished with a season-low 41 yards on 15 carries, and became the latest in a long line of opposing running backs (Chris Johnson, Fred Jackson, Willis McGahee) who have had a bad day against the Patriots.
There were some other positive aspects to the front seven of the New England defense over the first three-plus quarters. With Dont’a Hightower on the shelf, Rob Ninkovich spent most of the game at linebacker and combined with defensive end Chandler Jones to really do a good job getting after Wilson. Jones had a pair of sacks (his third and fourth of the season), and Ninkovich was in the Seattle backfield for much of the afternoon. Linebacker Jerod Mayo and Ninkovich also forced fumbles on the afternoon.
DANNY WOODHEAD ALMOST SAVED THE DAY
With some stellar performances over the first five games from Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden, the undersized running back had gotten lost in the shuffle. But with Ridley only rotating in on occasion and Bolden out with a knee problem, Woodhead was able to make some important plays Sunday against the Seahawks.
He finished with four carries for 25 yards and five catches for 46 yards, and while the Patriots didn’t get a lot of offense down the stretch, most of what they did get came from Woodhead, who accounted for the only two first downs New England had over the last 10:30. The Patriots also got a key seven-yard pickup on a third-and-6 when Woodhead delivered a great second effort to reach the first-down marker.
As for the rest of the running backs, it appeared that the Patriots decided to steer clear when it came to trying to test the Seattle run defense, which entered the game third in the league. Ridley had 16 carries for 34 yards, while Bolden had six carries for 28 yards. As a team, the Patriots finished with 26 carries for 87 yards.
THE PATRIOTS WEREN’T AFRAID TO GET AARON HERNANDEZ INVOLVED EARLY
The tight end made the catch on the Patriots’ first play from scrimmage, and ended up playing a sizable portion of the game. He came away with six catches (on nine targets) for 30 yards in his first action since injuring his ankle in a Week 2 loss to the Cardinals. For the versatile tight end, it was the same as it ever was as he was shuffled all over the field and appeared to show no ill effects from the injury. His unquestioned highlight came at the end of New England’s first drive of the second quarter, when he helped put the capper on a 15-play, 80-yard sequence with a 1-yard touchdown reception in the corner of the end zone.
When it came to the passing game, Hernandez actually saw just as much action as teammate Rob Gronkowski, who also had six catches (on eight targets) for 61 yards. However, maybe the best play of the day from a tight end wasn’t from Hernandez or Gronkowski, but Daniel Fells, who laid out for a sweet 35-yard catch from Brady on New England’s first drive of the second half. It was the highlight of the series, which ended four plays later with a 35-yard field goal from Gostkowski.
NO SECONDARY THAT FACES THE PATRIOTS THIS SEASON WILL TALK MORE POSTGAME TRASH THAN SEATTLE
After the game, Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman gleefully tweaked Brady and the Patriots via Twitter. In the wake of Brady’s statements earlier in the week when he said he hoped to silence the CenturyLink crowd, Sherman Tweeted a picture of a downcast Brady with the caption, Brady sure looks like a man who turned the 12thMan against us.
He followed that up with another Tweet (which has since been deleted): He told me and [Seattle defensive back Earl Thomas] to see him after the game when they win..... I found him after.... that included a photo from the AP. Thomas and Sherman each had a pick, while Thomas had five tackles (two solo) and two passes defensed and Sherman added three solo tackles and three passes defensed.
“Me and Earl [Thomas] walked up to Brady and said, ‘We’re better than you. You’re just a man. We’re a team,’ " Sherman told The Seattle Times after the game. “We’re never gonna let just one man beat us.”